Microsoft grants College $80K to teach video game design

The Microsoft Corporation awarded an interdisciplinary team of faculty and staff at the College an $80,000 grant to help develop a computer gaming design curriculum.

More than 40 schools competed for the prestigious grant, and the College is one of only three winners. The other two are Northwestern University and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Each school submitted a design proposal to Microsoft outlining how the gaming curriculum would be implemented upon receipt of the grant.

“We were up against many competitive schools, but we had the advantage of having an extremely interdisciplinary team,” Philip Sanders, coordinator of the interactive multimedia (IMM) program and member of the interdisciplinary team, said.

The team of nine, led by Ursula Wolz, one of the founders of the IMM program and an associate professor of computer science (CS), includes faculty from the art, English and communication schools.

In addition to Wolz and Sanders, the team includes James Lentini, dean of the school of Art, Media and Music; Anita Allyn, digital art and photography coordinator; Bob McMahan, associate professor of music; Miroslav Martinovic, associate professor of CS/IMM; Jikai Li, assistant professor of CS; Terry Byrne, chair of the communication studies department; and Kim Pearson, assistant professor of English. Pearson founded the IMM program in 2003.

“This has been a true collaboration among the faculty involved, and I’m confident that we will impart that spirit and teach the necessary skills to the students who participate,” Wolz, the primary investigator behind the project, said.

Microsoft sent a request for proposal (RFP) to hundreds of schools that might be interested in winning the grant to support gaming design courses.

According to Microsoft, its goal was to “enhance computer science and game design curricula through the introduction of video gaming concepts such as graphics, audio production, performance management and other classic CS topics relevant to computer game development.”

In its proposal to Microsoft, the College’s team wrote that it plans to address the problem of teaching game design and architecture at the undergraduate level by using the cross-discipline expertise of instructors and students.

Lentini said the team recognizes that game design is a multifaceted industry that requires fusing knowledge from different areas, such as communications, digital arts, music and computer science. Sanders, whose expertise is in digital media, graphics and animation, said he believes this was a key idea that distinguished the College from the other schools. Microsoft indicated that it was impressed by the College’s proposal because it “captured the breadth and vision of our RFP.”

Likewise, Wolz feels that collaboration and interdisciplinary work, both of which are promoted by the College’s mission, are crucial to industry and academic work in the 21st century. “We took that mandate seriously when we put the proposal together, and I was particularly pleased that the announcement from Microsoft stressed that we met the intent of the RFP so well,” Wolz said.

According to Sanders, the team is still in the early stages, but hopefully the gaming courses will be developed next year in order to have them ready for the 2006-07 academic year. Lentini, who has primarily helped to facilitate and encourage the team of faculty in the early stages of this project, said a tentative four-course sequence that will attack different aspects of game design is in the works.

Lentini said the grant will also allow the College to take advantage of Microsoft software, giving students a chance to learn and use programs that are critical in the game design process. “The grant is a tremendous honor and has now given us the advantage over other schools by allowing us to afford top-of-the-line hardware, enabling us to excel in game development,” Nick Sarnelli, junior IMM major, said.

Sanders said the grant will also provide the College with support from such a renowned industry giant like Microsoft.

The grant has clearly excited faculty and students. “I think it would be cool to create games similar to the ones I grew up playing and have the ability to contribute to designing them,” Matthew Vercruysse, freshman open options major, said.